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Demonstrations and Riots


Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn Burn Banned Wigs


Published: May 17, 2004

A n emotional upheaval within Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community spilled into the streets yesterday when hundreds of people gathered at a Williamsburg intersection, piled women's wigs on the pavement and burned them in a series of small bonfires.

The demonstration, involving members of the Satmar community and other Orthodox Jews, came days after word spread that rabbinical authorities in Jerusalem had ruled that the wigs, which were made of human hair from India, were no longer acceptable because they might have been used in Hindu ceremonies seen as idolatrous in Orthodox teaching.

"They just found out that the wigs are derived from Hindu hair,'' said Miriam Friedman, 25, a neighborhood resident who joined the crowd as it gathered about 6 p.m. to burn about 300 wigs, a few still attached to mannequin heads, at Lee Avenue and Rodney Street.

It was unclear why the crowd chose to descend upon the South Williamsburg intersection, other than its proximity to the main Satmar synagogue, which is less than a block away.

Yesterday's wig burning in Brooklyn followed a smaller, but similar spectacle on Saturday night in Kiryas Joel , a Satmar village in Orange County. It also followed wig-burning demonstrations in Israel during the past week.

Some in the Brooklyn crowd said that discarding or even burying the wigs would not suffice, and that they must be burned.

"We are not allowed to have any sort of satisfaction from these things,'' Ms. Friedman said.

For thousands of Orthodox women, one of the most fundamental tenets of daily life is a code of modesty that prohibits the public display of their hair after marriage.

In Williamsburg, as in Borough Park, which is home to another large Orthodox community in Brooklyn, women have long favored human hair wigs over their synthetic counterparts, and have been willing to pay a premium, since human hair wigs frequently cost $1,000 or more.

Although hair for the wigs is obtained from several sources, many wig makers in Brooklyn have relied on Indian suppliers.

People in the crowd said the gathering was not intended to provoke violence. "These are not riot fires; these are peaceful fires," said David Wertzberger, 25, who observed the scene about 10 p.m. "It is not a violent situation."

But the demonstration was not without incident as a small group of police officers struggled to control the crowd.

By 7:15 p.m., several piles of wigs had been strewn about and ignited. A ring of people formed around one fire, fueled by a cardboard box filled with wigs, and pressed so close that two officers stepped in, insisting that people move away from the flames.

That led to pushing and shoving, as the two officers moved the crowd back. Then a man darted inside the ring of people to throw yet another wig on the fire, and he was restrained by the two officers and led to a waiting patrol car.

By shortly before midnight, more than a dozen fires had been set at or near the intersection of Lee Avenue and Rodney Street.

The police said one woman had been charged with disorderly conduct.

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